There’s about 40 almost perfect minutes in 13 Tzameti, a big chunk of the film that will have you on the edge of your seat and your fingernails in shreds. Sadly, that 40 minutes comes after almost a half hour of true tedium and just before an overly obvious finale. But still! How many movies have 40 minutes as good as these? Almost none.
The film opens with a very poor roofer slowly getting involved in the affairs of the house he is working on – the man is a junkie who is broke and who is waiting for some mysterious summons. When it comes, he opts to OD rather than go. The roofer finds the summons, which comes with a train ticket and a hotel room and the promise of money. He decides to follow the lead and see what he comes up with. Sadly the film takes twenty five minutes to show you what I explained in a few sentences (and I lost almost none of the story, I think). What’s worse is that the opening of the film seems structured only for those who stumble upon the film on TV; ie, if you’re in a theater watching 13 Tzameti you know what it’s about already, so why does the movie take so long in setting that up?
What it’s about is an underground Russian Roulette club, as our roofing hero Sebastien learns to his horror. He’s accepted the summons of a rich man to chance a bullet in the head – but the twist is that you don’t shoot yourself in this game. In this game the players get in a circle, with their gun at the back of the next guy’s head.
The scenes in the club are brutal but not overly explicit. Writer/director Gela Babluani has really thought out the mechanics of the situation, considering the rules and setting and making them real. It adds to the incredible tension of the roulette scenes because you’re completely engrossed in the reality of the moment. Babluani has chosen to film in black and white, a decision that highlights the grime and the grit of the club and the sweat on the shirts and faces of the contestants. The brief explosions of blood are more shocking because of their dark vitality as opposed to the usual red grue.
The roulette scenes will serve to wake you up, perhaps quite literally after the torpid first act. The film falls into a slightly more generic thriller mode in the finale, one which you’ll see coming miles away, but which still plays fair by the film’s own grim rules.
In the end 13 Tzameti is a great film encased in a mediocre one. As part of an anthology, the main meat of 13 Tzameti would be unstoppable, but as a feature length film, the hammer doesn’t quite hit the shell. Babluani has announced himself as a major new talent, though, and the film is gorgeously shot from beginning to end. Word is that he’s remaking the film in English – if this rumor is true I hope he takes the opportunity to tighten up the flabby parts and deliver a truly world class thriller.